Students, from preschoolers to graduate students, across the country face unprecedented circumstances in their educational learning as a result of this virus. As most can agree the government did not do its best to maximally prepare for a sufficient response to the pandemic — being reactive rather than proactive — and so did the entire American education system.
To be fair, a significant portion of it was out of the control of administrators, school boards, faculty, and the thousands of those in charge. Never in our lifetimes did we imagine this format of learning becoming a reality to the masses of Americans, and the abrupt decision to quickly transition from seeing our classmates and teachers every day to waving to them hello on a Zoom screen. We must also remember that at one point or another, every country was in the same boat. Since the virus was a completely new one, no one had immunity or knew how to deal with it right away. Therefore, the sole factor that would determine the impact on our education system, as well as every facet of society, would be based on how aggressive the policies the United States used to slow the spread of this pandemic.
Obviously, the greatest obstacle was making sure everyone adapted to the technology. While many gen-Z-ers and millennials grew up with the internet, the likelihood of anybody in a previous generation knowing how to download, manage, and employ new, unfamiliar software significantly decreases. According to an article from the Stanford Center on Longevity, while many older individuals today use more technology than older individuals of before, it still takes time for them to learn, practice, and master the more sophisticated aspects of technology. Something as simple as knowing how to go to Google or typing in a password to unlock the computer is one thing, but making use of the myriad of Zoom tools to maximize learning is another.
As the transition to remote learning was abrupt, particularly the older teachers across the country did not have the time it would normally take to fully get accustomed to online teaching. As nearly one in every three primary and secondary educators are age 50 and older, it is expected for them to have some trouble naturally adjusting to this new method. For college, the average age of professors is 55. Naturally, more educators in the older age demographics would have struggled to adjust to effectively lecture or teach online, which causes time wasted on figuring out how to teach rather than actually teaching, or figuring out other technical issues. I remember in my general ed Intro to Nutritional Science course how we wasted essentially four lectures waiting on the professor to figure out how to turn his headset mic on so that he could lecture.
Just figuring out how to use the technology is challenging enough, but what about the quality once that’s taken care of? In one way or another, Zoom students were not learning the material to the level that in-person students would be expected to achieve. One of the most common policies several school districts and universities implemented this past spring is the “default Pass/No Pass”. Due to extreme circumstances, and the impacts this may have caused on students of widely varying situations, students were not held nearly accountable to the work they needed to complete and the material they needed to learn. Even if tests, quizzes, and other ways to assess the mastery of material were administered, they were mostly forced to be modified because there was no way to administer academic integrity and true mastery, forcing them to be open-book, open-notes. Some tried their best to create normal testing conditions as much as possible, such as requiring students to turn on their cameras showing they were working on their exams, but privacy concerns over web-conferencing apps, most notably Zoom, forced this idea to be scrapped. Humanities courses could replace exams with papers and projects, but in more STEM-related courses where this wasn’t possible, the only way to administer assessments was by allowing default take-home, open-note, open-book exams. Statistically, we learn better by studying for the material and being held accountable for it. By making essentially all exams, including standardized exams such as the AP, open-note, we’ve basically made what would be classified as “cheating” okay, but more importantly, we effectively have students learn less.
Academics isn’t about just learning materials, facts, and information. There’s definitely a social dimension to in-person education. According to a study by Missouri State University researchers, social interaction is the best way to encourage education and learning. Students are more likely to “think, read, conclude, and summarize, and question”, achieve and learn more with efficiency, speed, and accuracy. Rather than having the mindset of doing boring, mundane tasks each day, social interaction allows students to find excitement and enthusiasm in reading, learning, and understanding material. It’s this bond that is created among students and teachers that encourages more learning.
Of course, there are those who may ignore these figures and still say that online learning is better: it’s more flexible, and there’s an array of opportunities to engage in free, authentic, high-quality material online. Independent organizations like Khan Academy are good examples. Even with remote learning with teachers and classrooms, other countries that have widely put the pandemic behind them, such as South Korea, reported that having online learning actually encourages students to ask more questions and engage in dialogue. Think about it: how many times did you have a question you wanted to ask, but didn’t because you felt that it would be embarrassing in case your question sounded dumb, or you were just too shy to ask? Online learning eliminates a lot of that anxiety. You can have your camera off and have 100, 200, 500 students not know who you are and what you look like when you’re asking. Seoul, South Korea Office of Education Superintendent Cho Hee-yeon also explained how teachers can leave more customized feedback for each individual student.
But let’s say the two factors of teachers adapting to technology and genuinely learning the material weren’t the issue. There’s still the massive problem of thousands of students throughout the country not having a reliable internet connection, if at all. The national average is that one in every five American families do not have internet at all — meaning that one in every five students, on average, weren’t even doing any effective form of learning as required by their school or institution. Even with the remaining 80% of those who do have internet access, several of them have poor quality that would not be reliable for online learning. Also, about 21% of families in a different study reported that since there was no reliable internet access at home, they had to use public Wi-Fi in order for their child to finish schoolwork. As in that same survey, one in every five Americans believe that schools should not be responsible in making sure students are equipped with internet access, and an overwhelming 62% and 65% believe that the government at any level is not obligated to ensure some degree of internet access or cell phone service, respectively, even though 87% of respondents have stated how an internet access is either “essential” or “important but not essential” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Until a vaccine is widely available to the public, the immediate solution the United States must work towards is ensuring as many American families have digital devices and some form of internet access in order to bridge the digital divide, as other countries such as South Korea has. Other developed countries, such as Switzerland and Spain, already guarantee internet service to all families at some megabits per second (measuring the speed of the internet). As a response to COVID-19, if internet services weren’t being provided by the government, policies at the very least have been modified to ensure financial situations weren’t getting in the way of internet access by lifting all internet service fees. The closest thing the United States has done was have some cell phone service providers, like AT&T and T-Mobile, waive bills for the first few months of the pandemic or so. There still isn’t any major progress on ensuring internet access to more American families.
COVID-19, however, won’t last forever. At some point, there’s going to be some return to normalcy. The question is, will this pandemic be the reason why the transition to more remote, digitized learning came faster than we had anticipated, breaking barriers of institutional tradition? States have already started to waive mandated state testing; university institutions relieved students of having to submit test scores such as SATs or ACTs for the upcoming admissions season. But what if we use COVID-19 as a reason to make these changes more permanent? The University of California system, for instance, just this past May waived all standardized test scores as a requirement of the application process, citing that by the year 2024, it will have its own university testing system designed specifically for the nine UC undergraduate institutions.
If so, the same problems will still remain in the United States unless there is some guarantee that the internet will be more accessible, setting aside corporate greed for the common good. If not, then as future generations will be held to the normal accountability, the COVID-19 generation — those that have gone to school in any form during this pandemic — have essentially become “dumber” than what society would normally expect or anticipate.